Arkansas' bats could use wake-up call

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Friday, June 11, 2021
Arkansas second baseman Robert Moore takes batting practice Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Fayetteville.
( Gunnar Rathbun, University of Arkansas Razorback Athletics )
Arkansas second baseman Robert Moore takes batting practice Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas Razorbacks are again the betting favorite to win the College World Series based on revised odds released this week heading into the eight NCAA super regionals.

The top national seed and consensus No. 1 for more than two months, the University of Arkansas has a remarkable track record for winning every weekend, all 16 weeks this season, though seldom in overpowering fashion.

The Razorbacks (49-11) host piping hot North Carolina State (33-17) this weekend, with the best-of-three series starting tonight at 5 at Baum-Walker Stadium.

Arkansas left-hander Patrick Wicklander (6-1, 2.17 ERA) will oppose North Carolina State right-hander Reid Johnston (8-2, 3.90) in the opener.

If Arkansas can extend its streak of winning weekends, Coach Dave Van Horn will take the program to its third consecutive College World Series.

Ace reliever Kevin Kopps (12-0, 0.68 ERA, 11 saves) has been the driving force for the Razorbacks, reliable every weekend since a rough outing in the season opener against Texas Tech. The right-hander threw 185 pitches and delivered two wins and a save in last week’s regional victories over NJIT and No. 19 Nebraska twice.

Behind Kopps, the statistics say there are Razorbacks scuffling at the plate and on the mound in recent weeks.

“Yeah, we’re going to have to swing the bats a lot better the next couple of days if we’re going to win this series,” Van Horn said Thursday.

Wicklander has provided a series of quality starts since breaking into the rotation, despite a short outing in the Hogs’ 6-4 win over Vanderbilt in a winner’s bracket game at the SEC Tournament.

But the starts behind him from Lael Lockhart (3-3, 4.50), Caleb Bolden (2-0, 4.50) and others have been hit and miss, with Kopps and other members of the bullpen filling in a lot of the crucial innings down the stretch as Arkansas won the SEC regular season and tournament championships.

Asked about his pitching rotation for the super regional, Van Horn said Wicklander would start tonight, then there are question marks.

“We’re going to do what we can to win Friday,” he said. “I mean, what rotation? We don’t have a three-man rotation. We’ve got a one or a two, and then we go from there. So we’ll just try to win tomorrow and figure out who we need to throw on Saturday.”

The Razorbacks’ team earned run average of 3.77 is 22nd nationally and fifth among the 16 teams still playing.

While Arkansas continues to produce runs, ranking 15th nationally with 7.6 per game, and its home run count of 102 is second nationally and the most of any remaining team, it has a handful of key players fighting hitting slumps.

Almost all of the batters who typically hit in the 1-6 slots in the batting order, with the exception of Cullen Smith, have been on downward trends at the plate going back two-plus weeks.

Still, North Carolina State Coach Elliot Avent recognizes the Hogs for their slugging, power and depth in the lineup.

“It’s a good lineup, a very good lineup,” Avent said. “We’ve been watching film ever since it was determined we were going to play Arkansas. They have a very good lineup all the way through. A lot of power, a lot of home runs and different guys, just like our team, can do it on different days.”

Freshman Cayden Wallace, who has played third base and right field lately, is hitting .111 (4 for 36) with 13 strikeouts in the last 10 games.

Center fielder Christian Franklin is in a 5 for 35 (.143) rut with 19 strikeouts and 14 walks drawn in the last 12 games.

Matt Goodheart, who has been in the leadoff spot the last nine games, is hitting 8 for 54 (.148) with 5 runs scored and 10 strikeouts in the last 15 games.

And first baseman Brady Slavens, who had the top batting average among regulars prior to his ankle injury against Georgia in the first game of the SEC Tournament, is in a 5-for-30 skid (.167) with 13 strikeouts in the past eight games.

Each of those players has had a customary role among the top five hitters most of the season. But it’s really a team-wide dip of late.

Since cresting with a .290 batting average after a 13-0 win over Texas A&M on April 17, the Razorbacks have trickled downward in batting average, while almost keeping their same scoring pace.

Arkansas last saw .280 after defeating Georgia 5-3 in a series finale on May 9. The team average had been in the .270s for 15 consecutive games before slipping to .269 after Monday’s 6-2 regional clincher against Nebraska.

The Razorbacks’ .269 hitting ranks 139th nationally and 14th among the 16 remaining teams.

Catcher Casey Opitz said it is important that several hitters catch fire this weekend and the rest of the postseason.

“I think we played three good innings, and that was those last three innings of the last game,” Opitz said. “I think other than that we didn’t play good baseball or baseball we’re used to playing. With the stage we’re on, guys are coming out there and facing really good pitching.

“Obviously, we’re getting everybody’s best shot. Didn’t matter who they were. Last week, we were getting everybody’s best pitching because they had to go through us in our regional. … It’s baseball, it’s going to be tough. You’re going to have bad stretches. You’re going to have good stretches. Focus on how to be in that pitch and worry about winning the game.”

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